Lesley Paterson’s 12 Trail Running Tips

Lesley Paterson made a name for herself in triathlon, but she grew up “fell” running on the undulating terrain of the Scottish moors.

Photo: Scott Draper

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In addition to being a two-time Xterra off-road triathlon world champion, an elite mountain biker and a top-tier short-distance trail runner, Lesley Paterson is also an endurance coach (she guides clients through her Braveheart Fitness Coaching), actress with 17 films to her credit and scriptwriter who is co-writing a new screenplay for the historic World War I novel “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Although she’s made a name for herself in triathlon, she grew up “fell” running on the undulating terrain of the Scottish moors. We caught up with Paterson to talk about her trail running prowess and her advice about how to train and race on trails.

Trail Racing 101
When you’re racing on trails, there’s a real feeling about battling against terrain and the environment, versus battling against each other. So there’s a mutual support in that endeavor. It’s still a race, and we’re all out there trying to do the best we can. But, on trails, I think there’s just a sense of being out there in nature—there is a happiness about it. There’s a fulfilling feeling about it that’s less neurotic than some of the races on roads, where time and pace and all of those details are a big deal. You can’t really measure yourself at a certain minute-per-mile pace, and even power meters on a bike are somewhat obsolete when it comes to off-road racing. There’s a bit of creativity involved out on the trails and with that comes a very relaxed nature and you really have to go with the flow, even though you still might be running hard.

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Running Fast on Trails
Running fast on trails is completely different than running on roads or any flat surface. When you’re training and racing on trails, your movement and your gait are varied all the time. You have to have strong ankles, a strong pivot point, a strong core, and strong hips to be able to navigate rocks and bound off of them and dance around obstacles so you don’t get injured, but also not to take too much energy from your body.

Fartlek Training
Fartlek training is really good. I do a workout called “over-unders,” where you’re running just above your anaerobic threshold and then just below it. You’re constantly pushing those boundaries and continually going over the red line and coming back. I also do a lot of strength-based workouts and cross-training in the gym to build functional strength with the muscles you use while you’re running on the trails. It’s not only the eccentric strength you need for uphill running, but also the decentric muscle movements for running fast downhill and then immediately attacking another hill.

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Hill Repeats
Hill repeats are great drill for building strength and you can do them on road or you can do them off-road. You can do them all different times of the year with a different emphasis. In the offseason, I’ll do them with a lower heart-rate and focus on high-knee drive and engage all of those muscles as a strength component rather than a cardio component. I’ll also do bounding up a hill, which is almost like a plyometric drill up a very steep hill. They’re a controlled effort that really works the calves and feet. During the race season, I’ll pick up the pace and do sprints uphills and threshold workouts up hills. Strength is the basis for all of those kinds of workouts, but you can vary the intensity depending on the time of the season.

Tempo Run
Try to find a trail that will mimic your race course and do a long run of about 90 minutes and do a 30-minute tempo effort on that trail after that so you’re teaching your body how to deal with the fatigue of being on a trail and still being able to maneuver around that trail. That creates strength if you’re doing at the end of a long run.

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I think one of the hardest things in trail races is that you run an uphill and your legs as smashed, but then you hit a downhill hard and your legs are like jelly. Then you do another uphill and you’re like, “What the heck?” But you can train to improve on the same kind of terrain. Depending on the course you’re running, you should work over a hill and down the other side so you’re mirroring what’s going to happen in the race. During a race, if you work the uphill, you don’t just give up at the end of the hill, you get into a quick stride over the top of the hill and try to maintain your cadence. For example, I’ll have my athletes do a 4-minute interval on a hill, where it’s 2 minutes up a hill and 2 minutes down the back side of that hill. There are also some great intervals you can do where you run down a hill to start, then up a hill.

Leg Turnover
I do a lot of track work in the weeks before a race to get more leg speed and leg turnover. Sometimes I think when you’re on the trails, I think it’s easy to lull yourself into a false sense of security as to where your fitness really is or lull yourself into a pace that is less than what you’re capable of running. You need quick leg turnover to keep your timing sharp, even if you can’t run with that same fast turnover on a trail. There are times you need it, though, and if you don’t train for it, you won’t have it. So that’s why it’s still important to run fast on the track and road while you’re training for a trail race.

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Tracking Trail Volume
I don’t track the miles I run on trails. You can never really get a consistent measure of how far you’re running, especially when you compare that to how far you might run on roads. I measure my running by time on my feet, not by pace or even distance. Pace is mostly irrelevant on the trails. I started trail running when I was about 11 years old with my dad over the fells in Scotland. In 2 hours, you might only cover 10 miles, but boy it sure is a hard 2 hours.

Cross-Training for Trail Running
I do a lot of Cross-Fit functional strength work like box jumps, single-leg hops, lunges in all different planes of motion, medicine ball tossing and other exercises that engage all of the muscles in all different ways. When you hit the side of a trail or the side of a rock at a different angle, you’re using a whole different set of muscles. So you need to be versatile and efficient to be able to do that and spring off that into your next stride. A lot of single-leg work is really important training for those kind of situations. I call them ice skate hops where you’re hoping from side to side. You’re teaching your body to propel off the side of the foot. When you’re running down a trail, chances are you’re going to be picking your line and propelling off one side, then another off rocks, so that can be really handy.

For me, the cross-training involved with triathlon has made me a much stronger runner. I think the endurance aspects of triathlon and the versatility aspects of training for triathlon are amazing. When you’re working on a few different sports like you do in triathlon, you’re using all planes of motion and building strength in a wide variety of muscle groups. One sport really feeds into the other very, very nicely. The swimming, for example, gives you so much more core strength, and that’s the basis for being an efficient runner. The biking gives you leg strength and muscle mass for trail running. Generally, you get much stronger from swimming and biking and that really benefits your running.

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Running Form
From a balance point of view, when I run on trails, I tend to use my arms and have my arms out to the side so I can flail them a little bit in a bit of a circular motion. Practice a couple of techniques like that when you’re running downhill. Your body position and having enough of a forward lean is important. You don’t want to be jamming on the breaks when you’re running downhill, because that’s really going to damage the muscles and throw you off. If you have too much of a forward lean, that’s going to throw you off because you’re going to create too much speed.

Falling on Trails
I have almost perfected the Army roll. It’s about going with the fall rather than trying to breach it. The first reaction is something like, “Oh my god, I’m going to fall,” and then you tense up and stiffen your limbs and ultimately land a lot harder than you need to or potentially even break something. But if you roll with it and go with it, you can kind of get up and keep going and not have too much damage. But that also shows by strong ankles are really important. I sometimes roll over my ankles,  but they’re strong enough to cope with that and I’m able to keep running and not fall over. The more you practice running downhill sections of a trail, the better you become and less likely you are to fall.

I wear a lot of compression apparel after workout for the rest of the day. I always use Podium Legs at night and, for circulation purposes, I also vary back and forth between ice baths and hot baths and do a lot of stretching as well. And, then, of course, I always address it through proper hydration and fueling, before, during and after a race or workout.

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